Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger delivers a press conference Nov. 4, 2020. As part of the SB 202 election law, state lawmakers stripped the secretary of state as chair of the State Election Board. Credit: GPB News

The top Georgia election official who refused to “find” votes for former President Donald Trump testified Thursday about the infamous call and other attempts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results.

This story also appeared in Georgia Public Broadcasting

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is one of the first subpoenaed witnesses to testify in front of a special grand jury impaneled in Fulton County as part of a wide-ranging investigation into efforts by Trump and others to subvert Georgia’s election process and undo President Joe Biden’s narrow victory.

Raffensperger’s testimony lasted for four hours and his wife, Tricia, spoke for about 10 minutes, according to someone briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak on his behalf.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is seeking information from a number of witnesses that will guide her decision to potentially bring charges against Trump or others in his orbit for meddling with Georgia’s election.

The 23-person special grand jury, selected last month, is also asking for any notes surrounding the Trump call, information about Georgia’s thrice-counted presidential results and other election-related documents.

In February 2021, Willis sent letters to top officials and said her investigation would look into several potential violations of state law, including “the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration.”

In addition to the secretary of state, former Elections Director Chris Harvey, general counsel Ryan Germany, deputy secretary of state Gabriel Sterling and a former executive assistant, Victoria Thompson, and former chief investigator Frances Watson have been subpoenaed and are scheduled to testify in coming days.

Watson received a call from Trump in December 2020 where she was asked to find evidence of fraud with mail-in ballots.

“Whatever you can do, Frances, it would be — it’s a great thing,” Trump said to Watson. “When the right answer comes out, you’ll be praised.”

Watson’s call came shortly after a surprise visit to Cobb County by Trump’s then-chief of staff, Mark Meadows. State officials and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted a signature check on absentee ballot envelopes with those on file.

That examination ultimately found just two questionable ballots out of about 15,000 examined — both valid but needing an extra check to confirm the voter’s identity.

“Based on the result of the audit, the Cobb County Elections Department had a 99.99% accuracy rate in performing correct signature verification procedures,” the report reads. “No fraudulent absentee ballots were identified during the audit.”

The most famous example and likely centerpiece of the investigation is the January 2021 call between Trump and Raffensperger, secretly recorded and released to The Washington Post, GPB News and other media outlets, where the then-President Trump alternately harassed and cajoled Raffensperger to change the results.

“All I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state,” Trump said. “Flipping the state is a great testament to our country. It’s a testament that they can admit to a mistake. A lot of people think it wasn’t a mistake, it was much more criminal than that. But it’s a big problem in Georgia, and it’s not a problem that’s going away.”

But the call — and its aftermath — is only a fraction of what Willis and the grand jury could look at. In December, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani made numerous false and misleading claims to state lawmakers in unofficial hearings about elections. The Georgia GOP held a meeting where fake electors claimed to sign Electoral College documents as alternates. The U.S. Attorney in Atlanta abruptly resigned one day before the January 2021 runoffs. And Raffensperger held another call with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in November 2020 where Raffensperger said Graham asked about rejecting absentee ballots.

The special grand jury will solely focus on the case for up to a year and has subpoena power but cannot issue an indictment. When the investigation is complete, the special grand jury will release a report with recommendations for Willis.

Georgia has remained a central focus for Trump and other Republicans who refuse to acknowledge the 2020 election results. But in some ways, Republican voters seem to have moved on. Trump recruited a slate of challengers to unseat Raffensperger, Gov. Brian Kemp, Attorney General Chris Carr and Insurance Commissioner John King in last week’s primary election. All four incumbents handily defeated the challengers.

Raffensperger avoided a runoff election against U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, securing more than 52% of the vote. An analysis of early voting data shows at least 37,000 voters who pulled Democratic primary ballots in 2020 voted Republican in 2022, with crossover voting potentially contributing to Raffensperger’s outright win.

The criminal probe in Georgia is not the only place where Georgia election officials have testified about the attempts to reverse the presidential results.

Raffensperger and other top deputies have also given similar testimony about Georgia’s election aftermath to the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol. 

Gabriel Sterling, then the state’s voting system implementation manager and vocal critic of Trump’s attacks on election integrity, discussed Georgia’s election infrastructure and disinformation that plagued the state. The conversation included discussions about conspiracies surrounding vote counting in State Farm Arena, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani making false claims to state lawmakers in several hearings and persistent attacks on election results in Fulton County.

This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Stephen Fowler/GPB News

Stephen Fowler is political reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting.